For Native Americans in Arizona, the recently redistricted US House map will mean a loss of political power once protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, leaving the state’s solidly Democratic tribal areas with the prospect of a fringe-Republican congressional representative.
Democrats supported by Indigenous voters won every election for the past ten years in a district drawn expressly to empower Native American voters by a redistricting commission that relied on input from the area’s various tribes in 2011.
But new redistricting commissioners in 2021 didn’t have to comply with longstanding justice department “preclearance” requirements, after the landmark voting rights act provision was dismantled by a conservative majority of the US supreme court in the 2013 Shelby County v Holder decision.
The new district, redrawn without having to protect minority voting blocs from political backsliding, leaves Indigenous voters in the state with a near guarantee that a bolstered white majority will overpower them and elect Republicans for the next decade.
“The redistricting commission did a job on us,” said Lena Fowler, a county supervisor and longtime advocate for Native Americans in northern Arizona. “What they did to us was unbelievable.”
The unique relationship between Native Americans and the federal government, Fowler emphasized, is what makes congressional representation especially important.
“Tribes have treaty obligations and funding that comes directly from the federal government for education, water rights, roads – our health care is directly related to our congressional representation,” Fowler said. Being able to have that voice in Congress, and having that representative know what your needs and issues are, is so important.”
For the past decade, the Democrats who won in the district campaigned with a promise to work for Native Americans.
But the new 9 percentage-point Republican tilt of the reshaped district has attracted several GOP candidates, including the infamous QAnon leader, Ron Watkins, who has almost no connection to the area, save for a recently claimed residence at a motel turned apartment in a small town just inside the district boundary.
So far, Watkins has campaigned on overturning the 2020 presidential election and stopping a “communist creep”, along with bashing critical race theory, mask mandates and vaccine requirements.
Most of the other Republican candidates are similarly focused on culture war issues, lauding gun rights, border security, anti-abortion efforts and the “stop the steal” movement, which has proffered the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and that widespread voter fraud must be combatted at every level.
Their campaigns make no mention of the fact that some Native Americans in the district still lack electricity, piped water, sewers and internet service. None of their online campaign platforms mention the soaring unemployment and poverty on tribal reservations or the absence of high-paying jobs.
Tom O’Halleran, the congressman who has represented the outgoing version of the district for the past five years and won three elections with near unanimous support from Arizona’s tribal areas, has taken up their issues in his legislative agenda, advocating for more funding for Indian Health Services, broadband internet and job training programs.
“In the Cares Act, we asked for $20bn, and we got it in the second one, but in the first one, their initial offering was $2bn, and we got $8bn,” O’Halleran said in an interview.
“On a consistent basis, I and a few others, time and time again brought these issues up,” he said, “and then we had a chance to make the case to the administration.”
The 2021 redistricting commissioners redrew the map with the same tribal areas kept together, but instead of being grouped with enough Democratic-leaning Latino voters and a small number of liberal white voters to create a narrow, but winning Democratic-leaning minority coalition, the Indigenous voters have been paired with a conservative white majority.
Every estimate of the new district’s performance indicates that the Native American voters will be drowned out by the new white majority in the general election, and the field of GOP candidates reveals a belief that the Republican party’s more extreme positions will deliver a primary election victory.
The party-unaffiliated chairwoman of Arizona’s five-member independent redistricting commission brushed off protests to the redrawn district from Native American communities.
“We are the first commission that didn’t have preclearance. So our approach to the Voting Rights Act was entirely our interpretation of what that law means,” Erika Neuberg said. “I did not believe that on the congressional level, that it was the right thing to continue to have the Native Americans drive the shape of the rest of the map.”
Neuberg, who voted against the commission’s two Democratic commissioners and with the two Republican commissioners to reshape the district, said she thinks the new maps would have been approved by the US justice department, even if the now defunct Voting Rights Act section 5 “preclearance” requirements were still in place.
But Bruce Adelson, a former DoJ attorney who was contracted by Arizona’s 2011 redistricting commission to provide expert voting rights analysis, said he disagrees.
“If section 5 were still in existence, and if I had been the voting rights expert during the 2021 redistricting,” Adelson said, “then the district would have shown that minorities were able to elect candidates of their choice. So you couldn’t weaken that. You would have to maintain it.”
The current commission’s own attorneys acknowledged that the new maps lead to Native American voting power “retrogression”, a critical benchmark used for Voting Rights Act compliance until the supreme court’s 2013 Shelby County v Holder decision.
Indigenous leaders and voting rights experts say they’re skeptical the nation’s hobbled minority voter protections will offer recourse for the diminished voting power of the state’s Native Americans. Recent US supreme court decisions in cases where racial minority groups have challenged redistricting plans suggest they’re right.
“What we’ve lost in Shelby County,” said Torey Dolan, a Native Vote Fellow at the Indian Legal Clinic at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, “is the hard and fast rule that any retrogression is legally suspect.”